Hugging a Subordinate Can Create a Hostile Work Environment

Category: Client Update
Date: Mar 15, 2017 01:31 PM

A county correctional officer sued the county and its sheriff, alleging that the sheriff created a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.  The officer claimed that, during a 12-year period, the sheriff greeted her with unwelcome hugs on over 100 occasions, and an unwelcome kiss at least once, thereby creating a sexually hostile work environment. 

The county admitted that after the sheriff’s election, he introduced himself to the corrections staff and hugged the female employees.  However, the county disputed the number of times the sheriff hugged the officer, and contended that most of the hugs were at office parties, awards banquets, GED graduations for prisoners, and some training sessions or meetings, but never when the two were alone.  According to the officer, the sheriff’s conduct, which she believed had sexual overtones, was a source of constant stress and anxiety, making it difficult for her to concentrate and causing her to lose sleep.

The district court granted summary judgment to the county, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. 

The Ninth Circuit noted that to overcome a summary judgment motion, the officer needed to show that the sheriff’s conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter her work conditions and create an objectively and subjectively abusive work environment.  The Ninth Circuit held that the officer met this standard, based on her testimony that the sheriff hugged her more than 100 times and the evidence that he hugged female employees far more often than male employees, if not exclusively.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected “a sort of black letter rule,” derived from a few cases, that would allow hugs and kisses on the cheek as within the realm of common workplace behavior.  According to the Court, a “reasonable juror could find, for example, from the frequency of the hugs, that [the sheriff’s] conduct was out of proportion to ‘ordinary workplace socializing,’ and had, instead, become abusive.”  It noted that to determine whether the environment was hostile or abusive, it was necessary to consider the cumulative effect of the sheriff’s conduct and evaluate whether it was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the officer’s work conditions.

The Ninth Circuit also concluded that the district court’s analysis overlooked a number of factors.  This included the potentially greater impact of harassment from a supervisor, and in this case, the highest-ranking officer in the department.  It also included the significance of the officer’s testimony that she was constantly stressed, felt anxious, and took a sleep aid.  The Ninth Circuit also found that the district court improperly disregarded evidence that the sheriff hugged and kissed other women, noting that “sexual harassment of others, if shown to have occurred, is relevant and probative of a defendant’s general attitude of disrespect toward his female employees, and his sexual objectification of them.”    

Zetwick v. County of Yolo (9th Cir. 2016) _ Fed.Appx._ [2016 WL 6610225] (Publication ordered Feb. 23, 2017).

Note: 

Supervisory employees can be unaware of how intimidating their actions can be to subordinates.  What a supervisor may think is a friendly gesture can be extremely stressful, over time, to subordinates and support harassment claims.   

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